In Cory Doctorow’s novels for young adults, teenage “techno-ninjas” do battle with the powers that be, often represented by the Department of Homeland Security. Little Brother (2008) depicted a police-state crackdown after a terrorist incident in San Francisco.
But these aren’t just scenarios spun for entertainment. Through his work for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, his writings for Wired and the blog he co-edits, boingboing.net, along with best-selling novels for young adults, Doctorow has become a leading voice on the complex issues of “hacktivism,” and an advocate for web openness.
In Homeland, his follow-up to Little Brother, a Wikileaks-style data dump falls into the hands of Doctorow’s young hero, Marcus Yallow, pitting him against both government hardliners and an anonymous hacker army as he attempts to act according to his beliefs.
What about the adolescent imagination that draws you to write YA novels?
Young adults’ lives are extremely exciting to write about because young adults do things for the first time, and doing something for the first time is very different from doing it for the millionth time. The first time you do something that may later turn out to be quite banal, it’s rather exciting because it changes you: The first time you tell a lie of consequence, or the first time you do something noble for a friend. You come out of that experience a different person, and what’s more, you have no way to predict, going in, what you will be like coming out of it again.
There’s a lot of paranoia in the world, and in your books. Is paranoia like cholesterol—there’s good paranoia and bad paranoia?
One of the problems that we have when it comes to privacy is that it’s very hard to adequately price out, or understand the cost in advance, of privacy disclosures and of privacy breaches. Because privacy and its consequences are separated by a lot of time and space. You make a privacy disclosure now, and months or years later, somewhere very far from here, the consequences of that come back to haunt you. And that’s the hardest kind of thing to get good at.
You make a similar distinction between good and bad theft, like the test results that Marcus’ girlfriend, Ange, steals and, more broadly, the MIT documents that Aaron Swartz (an online activist who recently committed suicide while facing federal hacking charges) made available.
First of all, Aaron didn’t make any documents available. He downloaded documents. I don’t know that I necessarily would put those in the same place. And I don’t know that I would call either of those thefts. We have, for example, language in law about things like copyright infringement that appear in statutes that aren’t the theft statutes. And we distinguish between them because they’re different kinds of things. Obviously people who have something stolen from them are deprived of it, whereas people who have their information copied are not deprived of that information — they still possess the information, it’s just that other people possess it, too. It’s sort of like saying, jaywalking is bad, rape is bad, so why don’t we call jaywalking “road rape”? They’re different worlds.
I think that when you are young, you often have a hard time appreciating the potential consequences of your actions. Your development is all about taking incredible risks, doing things that you can never anticipate the consequences of. So the young people do often risk a lot, and certainly one of the crises of the way we handle young people and discipline is that, in the world of zero tolerance and incredible sentencing in the federal sentencing guidelines and three strikes and you’re out, we end up turning kids’ natural risk-taking behavior into something absolutely pathological, and we end up punishing them in ways that are completely out of step with any kind of justice or any kind of mercy.
Little Brother and Homeland invoke Kerouac and the Beats, who prized nature — and movement. Did this worldview emerge because youths in the ’50s were unsurveilled, free, even encouraged to be outside and far from anyone’s eyes?
Some people say the job of a science fiction writer is to contemplate the car and the movie theater and invent the drive-in, or maybe to contemplate the car, the movie theater and the drive-in and invent the sexual revolution. But when you think about what happened then, it wasn’t just that kids had this unprecedented freedom of motion in the form of the postwar automobile, but also, for the very first time, people who were civilians and had done no wrong began to carry identification papers. This thing that had been a feature of totalitarian states became in fact a tool of freedom: the driver’s license. And this kind of paves the way for the database society that we live in now. It’s kind of the strange unintended consequence, and maybe the inevitable consequence, of having to be licensed to conduct your daily rounds in the world around you.
Where is the next generation of writers coming from?
The Internet is primarily still a verbal medium, a written medium. There’s plenty of English teachers and creative writing teachers out there who do great work, but ultimately the way that writers learn to write is by reading and writing, and kids today do more of both of those things than they have ever done before. Even in the era of the long, epistolary relationship, carried out by letters over the weeks and months, most people didn’t partake in that culture at all. We have this impression that everybody was writing long letters to each other — because the long letters survived — and the people who didn’t write letters to each other, their words evanesced. But I think there’s more writing going on now than there was,.
From your lips to God’s ears.
Or whoever — from my lips to the emergent phenomena of a quantum and rational universe.
This story first appeared in the Independent Weekly, in North Carolina.